Film Review: “Joker” — Here Come the Killer Clowns

By Gerald Peary

Screenwriter-director Todd Phillips knows well what he is doing in the calculated way he escalates the bloodshed in Joker.

Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. Screening at Somerville Theatre, Coolidge Corner Theatre, Kendall Square Cinemas, and other movie houses around New England.

Joaquin Phoenix in “Joker.”

I avoid comic book film adaptations like malaria, but the Joker improbably winning the Golden Lion at Venice led me to check it out. How could a solo movie about a Batman villain be prize-worthy against more than a dozen art house favorites?

Well, the Venice jury is vindicated. Minus a couple of slips, Joker is a first-rate movie superbly conceived and directed by Todd Phillips and with a sublime performance by Joaquin Phoenix as Arthur Fleck (aka The Joker). Phoenix slithers into the mind and skin of his lowly, creepy, psychotic character in a conscious homage to the classic manic impersonations of Robert DeNiro as Taxi Driver’s Travis Bickle and The King of Comedy’s Rupert Pupkin. Arthur channels Travis’s coming alive and into manhood through weaponry and Rupert’s  smothering obsession with celebrity. The connections of these three movies can’t be clearer, as De Niro himself is along for the ride in Joker, playing to the hilt a fatuous late-night TV host.

There’s one more film that’s essential in the Joker mix, seen by few: Lynne Ramsay’s  2017 You Were Never Really Here (Arts Fuse review). It’s Joaquin Phoenix again, as, in Joker, a low-life in NYC living with and caring for his mother but, venturing outside, transforming into a serial killer. It doesn’t take away from Joker’s achievement to note that a stripped-down version of the story has already been done, and recently.

So what’s the narrative of Joker? Arthur resides somewhere in Gotham City (cartoonist Bob Kane’s Big Apple) in a dilapidated apartment building, where he dotes on his pale, frail, mostly bed-ridden mom, Penny Fleck (Frances Conroy). When she manages to crawl to the couch, it’s to watch her favorite late night talk show, The Murray Franklin Show; and it’s De Niro as the star of it all sitting smugly behind his desk chatting with the guests. Mrs. Fleck has one more obsession: her seeming romance four decades ago with her rich boss, Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen). Wayne, who could be Arthur’s real father, is, at this very moment proclaiming a run for mayor to clean up Gotham.

That’s one thing Wayne and Arthur agree on, but with very different solutions. Gotham/NYC has gone to pot. It’s exactly the encrazed cesspool which Travis Bickle so wanted to clean up, to make his city great again. Will it improve the environs in Joker by electing a reformist hizzoner? Or, in Arthur’s case, is there a more blunt, crude way to clear the lethal streets?

It’s time to mention Arthur’s debilitating condition. A variant on Tourette’s: the poor guy can’t help laughing out loud like a jackass whenever he gets tense. Which is often. The laugh is off-putting, alienating, and, among other failures, keeps him from making human connections. As with the sputtering, stuttering Norman Bates, the only woman in his life is dear Mother.

Can his laughter be harnessed, utilized? Clueless Arthur, after a lifetime of TV watching, has ambitions to be a stand-up comedian, even though his mom says, ingenuously, “Aren’t comedians supposed to be funny?” To support himself, he takes temporary jobs in a clown’s whiteface and ditsy outfit, singing ha-ha songs for crippled children, carrying advertising signs in the streets dolled up as a sort of Emmett Kelly.

For the first third of Joker, we, the audience, are totally on Arthur’s side. That’s filmmaker Phillips’s strategy: this miserable, disabled shlimazel, so caring for his mother, so enamored of little children, is getting a raw deal everywhere. His boss unfairly wants to fire him, and he’s beaten to a pulp by young hoodlums when he chases them when they steal one of his signs.

Then Arthur gets a gun.

Just when in time does Joker occur anyway? The story is set in some vague retro pocket, a comic book 1970s, Taxi Driver-land, Johnny Carson-land, but packed with anachronisms: Sinatra’s 1966 “That’s Life” blasting on the soundtrack, a fancy theatre in which the beautifully coiffed audience laugh their asses off watching Charlie Chaplin roller skating in 1936’s Modern Times. Arthur’s sluggish 1960s tape recorder. Most important: Joker is pre-computer. Although there’s a resemblance, Arthur cannot be pegged as today’s fan boy sending out violent tweets and texts while residing with his parents.

Is it real or a fantasy? Is everything that happens in Arthur’s demented imagination?  In Todd Phillips’s 2009 classic, The Hangover, his protagonists wake up in Los Angles to a baby in their room and a tiger. Are they still dreaming? Or when they end up at the home of Mike Tyson? Phillips continues walking this pop-surrealist line in Joker. Every time you think the world has exploded, Arthur pops awake. So none of that happened? Or some of it did? Or all of it did? And if it’s all in Arthur’s head, does that matter? Does it negate all that we’ve seen? Does the horror of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari just disappear when we learn it’s all the vision of a mad man? Maybe the mad man is the seer who sees the world clearly, like Arthur.

Finally, violence. Are there circumstances when Arthur rightly should take the law into his own hands, Travis Bickle style?

There have been who have attacked Joker as socially irresponsible for, in an era of mass killings, placing us in such intimate relationship with a murder, and, ultimately, with a host of murderers. There are others that argue that it’s just a movie, for God’s sake. And it’s not movies that are responsible for killings any more than guns are. My position? Joker is socially irresponsible at times, but with purpose.

Screenwriter-director Phillips knows well what he is doing in the calculated way he escalates the bloodshed. So Arthur has this gun. And his first shootings are — this is important — almost ones we leftist pacifists in the audience can agree on. He’s attacked on a subway by three suited, haughty, arrogant, Wall Street yuppies, who knock him to the floor and kick him and kick him. We hate them! And it’s definitely self-defense when he, who has never shot anyone before, pulls out his gun and blasts them.

But here’s where we begin to lose Arthur. Phillips shows that Arthur is extremely energized by the killing, pumped up, and so aroused as a man that, seemingly, he can knock on the door of the sexy woman down the hall, make love to her, and emerge with a doting girlfriend. And Arthur’s killings after? Each one gets uglier and has less motivation. I may be wrong, but I don’t think the crowds will be with him as he shoots away. I think audiences will be nauseated, revolted. Which is good.

BUT, and this contradicts everything I’ve said in the last paragraph. My artsy, transgressive self shamefully approves of, at the climax of the film, a clown revolt in the streets. It’s neither right nor left but unadulterated nihilism, the closest I can remember in cinema to Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, his revolutionary belief that “essential” theater is like the plague. Or in this case (with Steven Sondheim’s accompanying music), here come the clowns!

Gerald Peary is a Professor Emeritus at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess. His new feature documentary, The Rabbi Goes West, co-directed by Amy Geller, is playing at film festivals around the world.

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  1. Bill Marx on October 3, 2019 at 11:27 am

    The salient quotation from Artaud’s The Theater and Its Double that Gerry refers to in his last paragraph:

    The plague takes images that are dormant, a latent disorder, and suddenly extends them into the most extreme gestures; the theater also takes gestures and pushes them as far as they will go: like the plague it reforges the chain between what is and what is not, between the virtuality of the possible and what already exists in materialized nature. It recovers the notion of symbols and archetypes which act like silent blows, rests, leaps of the heart, summons of the lymph, inflammatory images thrust into our abruptly wakened heads. The theater restores us as our dormant conflicts and all their powers, and gives these powers names we hail as symbols: and behold! before our eyes is fought a battle of symbols, one charging against another in an impossible melee; for there can be theater only from the moment when the impossible really begins and when the poetry which occurs on the stage sustains and superheats the realized symbols.

    I would add that it is just this kind of release of diseased impulses, energies, and ideas that contemporary theater is deeply afraid of.

  2. Tom Connolly on October 3, 2019 at 5:57 pm

    I am amazed that so erudite and experienced a critic as Gerald Peary would not see Joker for the benumbed, achingly gratuitously violent, but ,most damningly , so attenuatedly derivative that the only vaguely original aspect of the sodden mess is the grotesquely calculated publicity campaign that began with Phoenix’s tantrums on the set and in interviews. If you want a sad clown go to the Boston Lyric Opera’s Pagliacci. You’ll find passion and violent risk-taking the post-Pulp Fiction pseudo-cinephiles couldn’t begin to understand. Note I do not put Gerry Peary in that category. Anyone who cares about serious film criticism is in his debt.

    • Gerald Peary on October 3, 2019 at 11:01 pm

      Hi, Tom: I guess we agree on the wonders of Raoul Walsh and are in totally different camps on this one. You see “derivative,” I see “homage.” You see gratuitous violence. I see a director getting the audience implicated in violence and then jolting the audience to how stupid they are being in allowing themselves to be complicit. Joker, to me, is like Bonnie and Clyde, where the violence goes from light and funny to more and more horrible and unbearable.

  3. Tom Connolly on October 4, 2019 at 10:03 am

    Gerry–It is also Phoenix’s performance. I am the majority of one who found Heath Ledger’s Joker less de profundis than late-Brando-self-indulgent. So the tortuous back story setting up “the Joker” is not illuminating but by-the-numbers to me. I felt like we were being told to sympathize with him, rather than being able to do so. The opposite of what happened with Walter White in “Breaking Bad”, for instance. To be honest, ever since “Pulp Fiction”, the whole “gore is a hoot” approach to slaughter is unacceptable to me. I think it reached its limit with “Natural Born Killers.” Have you talked to anyone under 30 about “The Wild Bunch”? They laugh at it. I bet they would roll their eyes at “Bonnie and Clyde.” I’m not wringing my hands at “desensitized youth.” I think that the way slaughter is normal now has limited the ability of film to offer critiques of violence. I hate to say it, but “Joker” is complicit.

  4. Steve Provizer on January 2, 2020 at 3:25 pm

    Just saw the film and read your fine review and the comments. The question of “complicity in violence” has and always will be debated. I did feel empathy for him initially, and slightly less so with each murder, although there were rationales for each subsequent murder (if such is possible)…For me, the complete turn toward the cartoonish in the last half hour was like a different film and any moral self-questioning compelled by the rest of the movie was undermined, but they must have figured this was a cinematic way to get to the back-story of Bruce Wayne’s parents being killed. I suppose the writers had a conundrum. They must have thought it was a brave touch to make Mr. Wayne a dickhead, but of course, that undermines his usefulness as a martyr. Excellent acting job, although the filmmaker’s compulsion to constantly focus on how skinny Phoenix had made himself for the part was gratuitous.

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